If you’ve ever marveled at a jaw-dropping performance by a string player on YouTube (you know the ones, where their left hand is climbing up and down the fingerboard at lightening speed while the bow works to light a fire above the fingerboard?), chances are the performer has spent significant quality time in a practice room somewhere, working on etudes.
Etudes focus on one or two particular skills at a time, offering dedicated exercises presented as a short musical piece for working on the skills in varied settings. Often an etude will look repetitious- this is on purpose! Encountering similar technique in an increasingly varied setting over the course of the piece helps your brain and hands become accustomed to performing the technique in virtually any piece, so when you see it in the new concerto your teacher assigns, you’ll be better prepared to give it a shot. You may also find your teacher switching up bowing styles on pieces with repetitious eighth- or sixteenth- note passages, for much the same reason.
Instead of looking on this change with dread, think of it as a new obstacle course of sorts for your bow or your left hand. Part of your job as a student is to teach both your left hand and bow to become a kind of acrobat, if you’ll pardon the analogy.
Think about what your left hand does as it’s working: it MUST land at precisely the right point, at precisely the right time, and often this involves physically moving your arm en concert with your hand and fingers! Any misstep or error in timing results in incorrect playing, and you don’t have much of a safety net, in most instances. Your bow also must balance and control its speed, point of contact, direction, and on-/ off-string contact so it can “catch” what your fingers are doing at the other end of your instrument. If these two things aren’t exactly together, everything falls apart! Etudes are designed to help you practice getting your two aspects together, and I hope the next time you’re assigned an etude, you will look forward to finding the “secret” of the etude: the skills necessary to play the etude to its potential. Good luck, and have fun!